I Dance for the Dead
The Blue and Black in the Pacific: A Eulogy for Teresia Teaiwa

Ojeya Cruz Banks*

Abstract

In the Pacific and Black/African diaspora world, we dance for the dead. For the late, legendary, Black Pacific poet-scholar Teresia Teaiwa (1968–2017), I danced a eulogy in Fiji. The performance is featured in a short film I made to honor her memory. A central focus of this article is to chronicle Teaiwa’s epic influence upon Pacific Studies and her establishment of a group of women artist-scholars of both Pacific Island and African diasporic heritage mostly based in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Teaiwa emboldened us to share family stories and to embrace our Black Pacific heritages through artistic practice and research. She honored Pacific solidarity, and diversity of knowledge, and was a fierce critic of Black racism in the region. I pay homage to her.
Keywords: Teresia Teaiwa, Pacific Studies, Black Lives Matter, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Fiji, dance as funeral rite

Recognized as kin among cherished intellectual, artistic and activist genealogies—someone who, in crossing over, takes her place among powerful ancestors whose metaphorical ashes you anoint yourselves with for the journey. 

Henderson 187

The above is a description of the late, legendary, Black Pacific poet-scholar Teresia Teaiwa (1968–2017). She gathered a coalition of women artists of both Pacific Island and African diasporic heritage mostly based in Aotearoa/New Zealand; and I was included. An impetus for our assembly was to present our research at the 2016 Pacific History Association (PHA) conference that was held on my homeland of Guåhan/Guam. Teaiwa called our panel the Blue and Black in the Pacific[1] because, as she said, “we are heirs of two oceanic histories” (146). Our Pacific Island ancestry include I-Kiribati, Samoa, Hawaií and Guåhan; and our artistic modalities involved visual art, poetry, music composition and dance. Teaiwa encouraged an embrace of our Black Pacific heritage in the creative work we do. Weaving connections between the two lineages, she believed, was a source of historical reparations.

I met Teaiwa during a period in which I lived for over a decade on Te Waipounamu, also known as the South Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand (NZ). Born in California of African and Pacific Islander American descent, I arrived in the South Pacific as a dancer with a specialization in West African dance and an eclectic contemporary dance background. Much of my intensive training in dance occurred as part of ethnographic field work in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. In Guinea, a significant principle of dance is about demonstrating a sophisticated ability to choreograph on the spot with live percussion. The creative process is communal and requires rhythm literacy and interaction with Malian djembe hand-drum tradition (Cruz Banks 2019).

Ojeya Cruz Banks in Leulevia, Fiji in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Ojeya Cruz Banks

Te Moana, or the Pacific world, immersed me into different worldviews of dance. Collaborating with renowned indigenous Māori dancer-researchers, as well as meeting Teaiwa[2] in 2015, led me to research that investigates the recovery and application of performance principles maimed by settler colonialism. In my research, I discovered that a function of dance can be to strengthen indigenous culture and actuate somatic decolonization in the Pacific.[3] An overlap between the epistemologies and ontologies of dance in the Pacific and Black/African diaspora includes the significance of ancestral invocation and chant. 

The central focus of the article is twofold:

One, to pay homage to Teaiwa and how the PHA panel Afro-Diasporic Women Artists on History and Blackness in the Pacific that she coordinated advanced my ideological apparatus of dance with Black Pacific consciousness. As part of this, I discuss how she encouraged us to think about how our work in the Pacific is implicated in the Black Lives Matter[4] (BLM) movement and called on us as “Afrodiasporic children of the Pacific” to transform the narrative of Blackness in the Pacific (Teaiwa 145), which was her motivation for organizing the panel.

Two, to reflect and comment upon a short dance film that I call an ode to Teaiwa, in which I dance a eulogy for her in Fiji. The film became a way to activate a dance tradition of mourning the beloved dead that is practiced in both Black/African and Pacific contexts. The cinematic production pays memorial to how Teaiwa touched my life, and the grief I felt when she died. I use the film to ruminate about being part of the Blue and Black in the Pacific and what I learned from her.

Ojeya Cruz Banks in Leulevia, Fiji in 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Ojeya Cruz Banks

The article is divided into three parts. To begin, I provide a brief introduction of Teaiwa’s biography and epic service to Pacific Studies and communities across the continent. I discuss how she challenged problematic notions of Blackness and Black racism in the Pacific and called on our alliance to jumpstart historical and cultural restoration work at PHA. Then, I outline how our work at PHA and beyond intersects with the global BLM movement. I go on to describe how my film embodies Black Pacific dance intersections, reverence for the Pacific Ocean and a performance worldview of dance as funeral rite. To conclude, I honor how Teaiwa inspired me to find the ways that Pacific and Black/African diaspora lineages coalesce through creative and cultural work, referring to the ultimate goal of the Blue and Black in the Pacific to mend spiritual and political Black Pacific disconnections. Finally, I explain how the film constitutes a tribute to Teaiwa’s visionary work and friendship.

Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa (1968–2017) and Afro-Diasporic Women Artists on History and Blackness in the Pacific

We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood.

Teaiwa qtd. in Hau’ofa 392

Above is one of Teaiwa’s most famous quotes. “No one doubted the Pacific Ocean was in Teresia’s blood,” Salesa wrote (96). Of I-Kiribati and African American heritage, Teaiwa was born in Honolulu, Hawaií and raised in Fiji. For decades, she lived and worked in New Zealand and contributed to the establishment of the first Pacific Studies program at Victoria University. Teaiwa was treasured by people across the Pacific. Not only was she a prominent scholar but also an award-winning educator. She spoke much of our diversity and our oneness as Pasifika people. She said, “you can’t paint the Pacific with one brush stroke” (Teaiwa qtd. in Husband n. pag.). Well-known for her poems and Pacific history research, she had a fierce solidarity with West Papuan independence, international feminist politics and was a strong critic of militarism and touristic projections in the Pacific. Teaiwa also extended the Pacific Studies conversation to include narratives of Black Pacific kinship and tensions.

Teresia Teaiwa. Photo: Courtesy of Victoria University

Teaiwa called out Black racism in Oceania. She knew of the damage done by colonialism and global capitalism upon the Black/African American and Pacific Island relationships, referring to

encounters between Polynesians and people of African de-scent, in the process of globalization that allow Polynesians to appropriate or consume African and Afro-diaspora cultural products. . . . Polynesians are able to exercise a kind of privilege that is very much like white privilege, without their being white.

170

Teaiwa criticized the cultural appropriation of Black culture in Polynesia that does not credit African American communities enough. She was weary of the ambivalence of Black people in the Pacific and how globalization and American popular culture economies construct fraught Black Pacific relationships. While there is a genuine aroha/love/respect for Black artists, there are also culture vultures of Blackness in Aotearoa. Teaiwa reminded our coalition that as we affirm our Afro-Pacific identities in New Zealand, we stay “conscious of the risks/challenges/threats/promises the Atlantic and the Pacific represented to our respective ancestors” (Teaiwa 146). She called on us, the Blue and Black in the Pacific, to do cultural reparation work—to weave historical and spiritual connections through storytelling and performance.

Carla Smith, Courtney-Sāvali L. Andrews, Teresia Teaiwa, Joy Enomoto, Ojeya Cruz Banks Alisha Lola Jones and Katerina Teaiwa after the Pacific History Association Conference in 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ojeya Cruz Banks

Our conference session began in silence as we assembled a circle altar made with a patchwork piece of fabric from Guinea, West Africa. Inside the cloth was a kava bowl (kava is a plant native to West Pacific, the root is used to produce a revered drink), a plant-woven pouch from Kiribati, Samoan red beads and vibrant fuchsia ginger flowers from my Great Aunt’s garden in Barrigada, Guåhan. When the ancestral altar was finished, we sang a song I had written. The women sang deep, haunting gospel style bassline back-up vocals, while I sang the following lyrics:

Under this skin
Bloodlines converge
Rain clouds gather and turns the water gray
We ripple across the ocean and break on many shores

Body is earth
The color of home
Sunrise spreads across the landscape and turns the water green
We ripple across the ocean and break on many shores

Then, one by one, we shared our stories and research through song, poetry, family memoirs, film, prose, dance and visual art. We sang together, we listened to each other, we cried, and we chuckled. I was stunned that we had found each other and was in awe of every single presentation. Jones described our work as a global reunion of sisterhood and a ritual of connection (179). 

The altar we made at the 2016 PHA conference. Photo: Courtesy of Ojeya Cruz Banks
Black Pacific Connections and A Danced Eulogy for Teresia

“She rises as the sun and glimmers on the ocean,” I wrote (Cruz Banks, “Remembering” 189). Teawia encouraged us to think about how our two oceanic lineages advance the conversation and activism of Black Lives Matter (BLM) within the Pacific context. This is in line with the call from BLM founders for global Black activism, with Cullors describing the movement as “a liberation movement that crosses continents and histories of oppression” (Cullors and Lowkey). Tometi states that anti-Black racism is happening worldwide and systematic racism upon Black folks needs to be challenged in every single context (Garza et al.). The call to action from BLM was a reason for Teaiwa calling on our Black Pacific collective. The PHA event inspired me to merge deeper connections between my ancestral lines, honor the Black diaspora in the Pacific and interrupt how African American heritage gets reduced to pop culture in the Pacific (Cruz Banks “Māoritanga”; “Polynesian”). However, there were marches and dances of solidarity that followed the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor across cities in Aoteaora/New Zealand in June 2020. Teaiwa would have been proud.

Teaiwa and I at Ypao beach in Guåhan 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Ojeya Cruz Banks

Teaiwa shined a distinct light on a story of global Black identity in the Pacific. In her 2016 PHA presentation, she described Fiji as a birthplace of the afro/bui ni ga, a symbol of Afrocentricity with the people wearing their “hair like a halo” with unbraided and unshaven glory (Teaiwa 172). Additionally, through informal conversations, I have heard about Fijian oral histories that report of their migration to the islands from East Africa. The Black Pacific intersections on the islands of Fiji are ripe and this attracted me to Melanesia, particularly Fiji, where Teaiwa grew up. This is why Fiji felt like an auspicious location to dance for her. Hence, the dance film I describe below was inspired to pay respect to her call to weave Black Pacific historical connections and spiritual reparations through personal stories, and artistic practice.

Blue and Black in the Pacific: A short dance film

The film begins with a shot of a windy day on the island of Leulevia, Fiji. I created this film as a eulogy for Teaiwa. I perform sung poetry and dance on the shores of Fiji, where Teaiwa was raised. In this film, I sought to capture the astonishing landscape with coconut leaves blowing in the wind, an infinite horizon, clear turquoise waters and grains of sand in order to create a dance of remembrance. At the start of the film, you see the leaves of an ensemble of coconut trees swaying, and you see the crystal-clear blue sea and hear the sound of the water washing upon the shore. The ocean soundscape is accompanied by me singing a stanza of Teaiwa’s poem “Searching for Nei Nim’anoa”:    

I need to learn how to navigate
To read the stars, the wind and ocean swell    
Like she did

Then, the footage fades into the countryside of the island Vanua Levu, as a classic photograph of Teaiwa is superimposed onto the contours of the land. Her image lingers and then disperses into the tall, cream-colored grass oscillating in the wind. The next scene turns to the beach and I am standing on warm sand with ocean water coming in from both directions. I am wearing a blue lavalava or sarong handmade in Samoa, a red tube top made in Guinea and choker beads from Saipan around my neck.

As I dance, I feel my bare feet on the sand and I quietly sing a vocal drumbeat to myself. Then, I begin to undulate my upper body, slowly unleashing through my hips. My feet flick up the sandy grit as my hips shift like pendulums. Arms stretched out towards the blue sky, I carve out shapes that are reactions to the percussive footwork. I gaze out to the ocean and start quietly singing to myself sabar[5] rhythms from Senegal as my hip swivels and spirals pathways. My feet hop, tap, jump and land as I carve shapes with my hands. I pause and my body contracts, and then I look up at the infinite skies above. Afterward, I look to the ground and trace a circle in the sand with one finger. I draw a line through the middle of the circle, then gently pass it in the direction of the turquoise sea. Instantly, my arms rebound, and I dance Guinea lamban.[6] Arms stretched out, wrists flexed, I face downward to the earth. My knees lift, my body rocks and I feel like a bird. The momentum of my arms spins me around and I land in a squat, my head bowed and my torso pulsating with angulation, four times. I slowly roll my spine up to stand and gaze toward the magnificent South Pacific Ocean. A smile emerges on my face as I walk into the water.

I described atop a danced eulogy for Teaiwa. In the film, I dance to celebrate the prophetic work of Blue and Black love. I dance to invoke Teaiwa’s memory. I dance to savor the wholeness I feel when I bring my ancestral lines together. I dance to adorn myself in ancestral mana.[7] I dance for the dead.

Dancing for the dead is a philosophy practiced across Pacific, Black and African worlds, a mourning rite, to pay respect to dead loved ones (Kaeppler; Barker and Shipton; Cruz Banks “Atamira”; Akunna). The acts of chant, music and movement often activate ancestral memorials. Funeral dance procession in New Orleans, for example, enables a mourner to bereave with the whole body and open the floodgates of grief (Barker and Shipton). In Nigeria, dance is understood to be a therapeutic way to heal from loss and alleviate the suffering (Akunna). Additionally, in Hawaiì, chant and dance are media for expressing unbounded grief and farewelling the dead. In Aotearoa, dance is also a way of remembering family members who have perished generations ago (Cruz Banks “Atamira”). Recently, colleagues Faik-Simet (Papua New Guinea) and Turiano Reea (Tahiti) reported that COVID-19 lockdowns have led to the postponements of funeral rituals[8] that involve chant and dance. The many lives lost during the pandemic have left communities feeling unsettled by the incomplete burial ceremonies.

In my eulogy for Teaiwa, I danced on one of her Pacific homelands, I envisioned her soul as ocean, I offered her West African heritage dances and chanted her poetry. For her, I wanted to honor our interwoven Black Pacific ancestral lineage.

Performance Worldviews Embodied in the Film and Concluding Thoughts

An ultimate choreographic ideal in the Pacific is to embody ancestral allyship, personify the spiritual lands that we belong to and map sacred topography kinetically (Teaiwa 110; Cruz Banks, “Haka” 67). Oceania is called the “sea of islands” by Teaiwa’s mentor Hau’ofa, who proclaimed: “we are the ocean” (27). An influential thinker for Pacific Island Studies, Hau’ofa insisted that heightened awareness of our water and land connections breeds robust identity and harnesses creativity. 

The Pacific taught me that the ocean is a critical stage for creative inspiration and holding ceremony. Saltwater purifies. As Royal articulated, dance is to become “sensorial[ly] alive” to water and land and to your ancestral network (n. pag.). This ontological positioning anchors us in spiritual realms. In Aotearoa, there is a concept called whaakahua,which means “to become.” This principle has to do with the ability to absorb, channel and even become ancestral deities who embody elements of the natural world (Bryant 6). For instance, on the shorelines I have studied how to personify the qualities of water (Cruz Banks, “Haka” 67) and seek artistic revelation. Now, I pay attention to the sight and sound of marine rippling or how sunlight spreads across the surface of the sea, or how fierce ocean currents collide against sea cliffs, and read them as choreographic prompts. In the film I leveraged Te Moana as a dance-making space. I performed a ritual that resonates island and pays homage to Teaiwa.

When I was in Leulevia, I did not just see a beautiful beachfront in the tourist sense. I was remembering Teaiwa as I danced. Aotearoa taught me to see the Pacific Ocean as a living mythology and liquescent history—a place where we bring our prayers of remembrance, gratitude, take deep breaths, grieve and heal. So, on that day, I danced for my sister, who will never be gone from my heart’s memory. I danced for the dead. When Teaiwa died, she crossed over into the realm of the ancestors and laid down her legacy. She is the ocean, an infinite soul who will forever wash upon many shores. The ocean is a sacred relative.  

In conclusion: Teaiwa’s mobilization of the Blue and Black in the Pacific empowers me to perform Black Pacific reparations. She called for projects that chart and affirm the body of knowledge we call heritage. The precious opportunity to do Black Pacific work with Teaiwa, and to live in Aotearoa, invigorated my understanding of the power of ancestral positionality for informing conceptualizations of dance. When I danced the sacred embrace of my intertwining bloodlines, landscapes, and oceans, I deepen connection to genealogy. In the film, I danced to hold memorial for Teaiwa, continuing the work of Black Pacific healing reparations.


Endnotes

[1] Members of the Blue and Black in the Pacific included Teresia Teaiwa, Joy Enomoto, Courtney-Sāvali L. Andrews and Alisha Lola Jones.

[2] See Cruz Banks (2010; 2011; 2015; 2016; 2017).

[3] See Cruz Banks (2014; 2017; 2021).

[4] “#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation Inc. is a global organization in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives” (“Black Lives Matter”)

[5] Sabar is a Wolof cultural tradition in Senegal which includes a diverse repertoire drum and dance. The dance rhythms such as Ceebu cin are highly influenced by neighboring cultures such as the Sereer people.  Sabar is historically a women’s dance, and symbolic of their roles and rituals (Gittens).

[6] Lamban is a Malinke/Manding drum/dance rhythm. The dance is inseparable from djembe drum percussion and called the dance of the jelidon, oral historians or griots. It is danced during marriage ceremonies and other events in West African locations such as Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Gambia (Cruz Banks). 

[7] Mana is a complex term indigenous to several Polynesian languages. According to Turuki Pere (1997) mana is beyond translation but often explained to be a quality of prestige and power unique to individuals and tribes.

[8] This research was shared at the 2021 Traditional Yearbook of Music virtual conference. The panel was called “Community and COVID-19: Perspectives from Oceania.”


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Black Lives Matter—About.” Black Lives Matter, 16 Oct. 2020. 

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*Ojeya Cruz Banks (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Dance at Denison University. A dancer anthropologist, her research, dancemaking and film is grounded in her Pacific Islander (Guåhan/Guam) and African American heritage (Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana). For over a decade, she worked as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This is where she developed a research area in indigenous Pacific contemporary dance and Black Pacific dance intersections. She has studied dance countries such as Guåhan, Guinea, Senegal, and Mali, as well as in Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda and Cuba. She is also a member of the FlyGround Dance Company based in Philadelphia. Recently, Cruz Banks gave a keynote address to celebrate the establishment of the new doctoral program dedicated to Dance Education at Teacher’s College, New York.

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